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Is Libertarianism Compatible with Islam?

By Davi Barker, M4L

May 17, 2011


I recently came across an article by Laurence M. Vance on Lew Rockwell.com titled “Is Libertarianism Compatible With Religion?” in which he reflected that he, a devout Christian, and Murray Rothbard, an agnostic Jew, would have gotten along because they shared a common enemy in the state. I have often said that the amazing thing to me about liberty is that it can put atheists and muslims on the same team. But as Vance levied a wall of Biblical verses to bolster his thesis I found myself wishing that such an article had been written from an islamic perspective, and so I’d like to offer my first humble attempt at such a task. It seems that answering this question may turn out to be my life’s pursuit, which makes these first awkward steps that much more difficult, but let’s take a running start at it and see how far we come.

Polling data suggests that muslims comprise 1 to 2% of the American population. Libertarian candidates rarely exceed 1% of the vote in any presidential race. Although many libertarians throw their support behind liberty minded republicans like Ron Paul, or don’t vote at all, like myself. Still, if these numbers are any indication, the odds of me meeting another American muslim libertarian should be a statical anomaly. Yet dozens of my friends and acquaintances place themselves somewhere on the libertarian spectrum, from libertarian partyarchs to full-blown anarcho-capitalists and all points in between. Although this observation certainly is not scientific by any measure, to me it does suggests a confluence of values that is seldom examined.

I am in good company in this pursuit. Legal professor John A. Makdisi makes the case that the origins of common law are to be traced to the Maliki school of islamic law in North Africa. Anthropologist Spencer MacCallum has argued that the same legal tradition has allowed Somalia to exist in virtual anarchy since 1991 and even prosper relative their living conditions prior to dismantling the government. Rose Wilder Lane, regarded as one of the founding mothers of the libertarian movement wrote “Islam and the Discovery of Freedom” in which she describes early Islamic civilization as a virtually stateless society that flourished because of it’s emphasis on free markets and individual rights. She credits muslim traders and scholars with introducing the West to liberty, especially the idea of individual conscience.A great hurdle that many have toward understanding and accepting the philosophy of libertarianism is the misperception that libertarians advocate drugs use, sexual promiscuity, gambling and other vices that dominate the political platforms of social conservatives. In reality the philosophy of libertarianism has no position on these activities, and whether or not any particular libertarian advocates or discourages them is a matter of individual opinion. What libertarianism is is a political philosophy which defines the appropriate role of violence in society.Ask yourself this question:

Do I believe violence should be used to solve nonviolent problems?

If you answered “no” you are a libertarian. If you answered “yes” you are an authoritarian. Everything else is just learning to consistently applying that answer. Libertarianism holds that the only appropriate use of violence is in defence of one’s person or property against aggresision, and that the initiation of violence is unacceptable and damaging to society. So, for example, I may not smoke cannabis, and I may discourage people from using cannabis without a medical cause, but I certainly cannot advocate the use violence to prevent people from using cannabis, which is a non violent act. This is known as the non aggression principle, which is the cornerstone of the libertarian philosophy.

One doesn’t have to look far to find the non aggression principle in the Quran. The verse, “There shall be no coercion in religion” (2:256), with the word deen (here translated as “religion”) understood to mean a complete and comprehensive way of life, immediately follows Ayatul Qursi (The Verse of the Thrown), which is one of the most read, most widely memorized and most prolifically displayed verses in the whole Quran. So, this prohibition of coercion is inseparably linked with one of the Quran’s most potent statements of creed. For Christians it would be as if the verse was found at John 3:17 in the Bible.

The non aggression principle is a deep and self evident Truth in human interaction. Actions which are coerced have no moral value. So if the aim of islam, and religion more broadly, is to fill every action with virtue coercion can never achieve this. A person behaving outwardly virtuous while under compulsion lacks inward sincerity, and therefor virtue. Compulsion and sincerity are incompatible and must be inversely correlated. As one waxes the other must wane. You can not achieve authentic virtue by threatening the cannabis smoker with violence. You can only inculcate hypocrisy.

What does this mean for the state?

Carried to it’s logical conclusion a deen without coercion is also a political order without coercion, which is no state at all by current definitions. In modern political science jargon a “nation state” is that institution which claims the monopoly privilege to initiate violence to achieve sociopolitical goals. If you consistently apply the non aggression principle you can’t have a state by this definition. But it’s hard to imagine a robust libertarian tradition in islam when one looks at what centuries of authoritarianism has wrought in the Middle East. You must go further back, to the foundations upon which Muhammad built the social order in Medina.

The society in Medina was pluralistic, accommodating a diversity of tribes, many of which were Jews and Pagans. In the West pluralism was achieved by taking monopoly privilege away from the church and giving it to the state. Yet, today we still find power used to oppress the powerless. The problem is monopoly itself. You cannot protect pluralism, which is mandated in the Quran, with a monopoly.

The social order in Medina was called a mithaq, which is a covenant between independent parties. It’s closer to the word “union” than “state.” Tribal groups enjoyed self determination as separate units in society. Muslims made up one unit in which islamic law was observed, but each of the Jewish and Pagan tribes were recognized as independent and free to practice their own religion, to form their own judicial system, and observe their own laws, not islamic law. These independent units formed a union only to the extent that they negotiated a written constitutional agreement outlining a mutual protection pact to defend against outside aggression, and a non aggression pact to prohibit attacks from within.

For the constitutionalist muslim the similarity between this union and the American union is sufficient to consider oneself a libertarian in the American political system. The only role of the state becomes to protect from enemies foreign and domestic. But for muslims who desire to consistently apply the non aggression principle to the state itself another step must be taken. One must ask how Muhammad’s authority was legitimized. Most muslims will say that Muhammad’s authority as a leader came from Allah, which is a fine answer for a muslim, but not for the Jews and Pagans of Medina. In Medina’s social order authority was derived from bayah, which literally means “to sell.” It is a pledge of allegiance or social contract. Bayah in Muhammad’s time was an explicit voluntary arrangement, not a coercive one. It was a contract between individuals outlining mutual rights and responsibilities, not arbitrary authority to enforce sociopolitical preferences through violence.

So, islamic political theory has all the same baggage as Western thought around “consent of the governed.” Like the West, early islamic scholars developed a doctrine of “tacit consent” where social contracts were not a function individuals entering voluntarily but instead tied to land and borders. In short, the state. Love it or leave it. But there is no denying that this was not the social order in Medina. Pagans, Jews and muslims shared the same roads, traded in the same markets and drank from the same wells. They were part of different social spheres, sharing no obligation to each other except those they contracted. Legal systems were not separated by territorial boundaries, as states are today. They existed right on top of one another, shifting according to consent, not jurisdiction.

After Muhammad died the muslims did the same thing that Americans did after winning their independence. They prioritized unity over consent, and it had the same results. Civil war. If you prioritize unity over consent you can only manufacture tacit consent with violence, leading to an ever increasing need for authoritarianism. Because, like virtue, violence cannot achieve authentic unity. It can only inculcate hypocrisy. But if you go back and consistently apply the non aggression principle, and you prioritize consent over unity, you will allow the emergence of a more peaceful, more diverse, more libertarian deen.



  1. James

    Islam might be compatible with libertarianism but not in any western nation. I say that simply for the fact that the Islamic religion and culture of present day actually uses the laws of the host nations against them in order to force the views into society. The constant threat of violence and civil unrest often times will be the causative effect of nations “accepting ” Islam as a religion when it’s much more in fact. It changes a nation and the culture of the host and IMHO should be viewed with great caution.

  2. x

    “Carried to it’s logical conclusion”

    Its not it’s.

  3. Jonathan

    Hi Davi,

    Have you seen Wael Hallaq’s most recent book, Shari’a: Theory, Practice, Transformations? I think you would find it very useful for thinking about Islamic law, governance, and the state. He discusses the very different nature of pre-modern Islamic law and the modern nation-state, and the ways in which the transition to statist societies has transformed Islamic law and legal practice. He tends to see Islamic law and practice as being, if not anti-statist, at least remarkably independent of specific ‘states’ of governments; I think he sometimes overstates things (no pun intended!), but he’s definitely right about one of his central points: the Shari’a developed apart from any specific state or government, a sort of private/communal law, that was not immediately backed up by any sort of coercive force, and that had(s) plurality and multiplicity at its very theoretical foundations.

    There are lots of other points of ‘anarchic’ developments and tendencies in medieval, pre-modern Islam, starting with the fact that no ‘Islamic’ ‘state’ had anything like absolute power, or even real state power in the modern sense. Power and governance were centered in neighborhoods, tribal units, madhhabs, futuwwa guilds, Sufi lineages, villages, Shari’a courts, and so on. The caliph/sultan/amir/wali’s power usually only extended to the top tiers of society, and had to be mediated, with ever decreasing force, downward.

    Finally, there were a few Muslim groups and tendencies that seem to have disavowed the need for even the bare minimum ‘state’ represented by caliph/sultan/etc. Some Sufi groups seem to have fallen into this category, but they weren’t the only ones. One of my professors in Islamic history tells me he is working on a book on what he describes as Muslim ‘anarchists’ in the ninth (I think) century, which should prove to be quite interesting- something to keep an eye out for.

    Anyway, a few more things to think about- there are all sorts of permutations within Islamic history and Islamic doctrine that lead along ‘libertarian’ lines (in a very broad definition, of course), even if they were not articulated as such.

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